Japan is known for its cities. If you ask someone to imagine Japan, one of the first things that probably comes up is the scramble walk in Shubuya, where hundreds if not thousands of people cross the street every time all the lights turn red. Or you probably imagine the neon lights of Kabukicho or our own Dotonbori here in Osaka.
But, when ever anyone asks me where they should live in Japan, my first suggestion is usually the countryside. It is often forgotten and rarely showcased, but it exists. And there are some fairly hidden away spots to explore in Japan that are full of their own experiences that are different from the city.
It all comes down to why you are moving to Japan in the first place and what you hope to accomplish while you are here. Both places offer different experiences that are both rewarding. Also, if you are staying forever or just a short time, that can also affect where you want to live.
As in most countries, things tend to go a lot slower in the countryside. When I lived out in the country, I really didn’t have to plan things out too far ahead. Typically friends came over to my shabby apartment and we drank and talked or I would go to the local ‘gaijin’ bar and drink and chat. About once a month or so, we went on some trip somewhere or had some semi-special event.
Things don’t really need to be scheduled in the countryside, you just tend to do whatever everybody else is doing or don’t, you can stay home and study or go exploring on your own. This can bring a certain kind of freedom of its own if that is what you are seeking. Because there are always places to explore and find. Regular old boring stuff to the locals are treasures to international visitors.
In the countryside, I also seemed to have a lot closer friends. There were a lot of people I could call and just hang out with, Japanese and expats. It also helped that since people lived fairly close you could literally stop by, which really isn’t an option in a big city. Also, every foreigner you meet is somehow instantly your best friend, which is the opposite of the city where foreigners tend to ignore each other unless they are lost or something.
The greatest thing though is that in the countryside you realize that Japan has a lot of nature. Since it is very mountainous Japan actually has a lot of unsettled areas. Places that have resisted farming and civilization because they are just too rocky and mountainous to build anything on, making them somewhat untouched nature preserves.
Don’t get me wrong, there has also been a lot of logging and clearcut mining that has torn up a lot of places as well. One of the tallest mountains in this area, Mt. Ibuki, offers spectacular views of Lake Biwa and a lot of Shiga, but it also has a huge chunk out of the side of it due to some kind of mining. Still as the population starts to decrease and nature starts to reclaim the land used for the now abandoned recreation areas in the mountains, I think you’ll start to see more and more trees and wildlife returning.
The city obviously has more resources in every sense of the word. You could probably eat at a different restaurant every night and never run out of places to dine. There are also things like parks, aquariums and theme parks. Your usual big city fare.
Big cities in Japan also offer more comforts from ‘back home’, wherever that may be for you. So, for example, you can pick up a turkey for thanksgiving or a Whopper to clog your arteries with if the desire hits you. You also will be able to find sports bars with satellite TV that will be playing your favorite sporting event from back home.
There are obviously a lot more foreigners that you can surround yourself with as well. I seem to have more friends in the city, but less really good friends. There is something about being the only handful of foreigners in a particular area that brings you closer and also forces you to get out and met the locals.
The comforts from back home and loads of foreigners can be a good or bad. It can be good in the sense that you can still have those must-have things from back home with you. And if you have been living here for a while like I have, there tend to be those things that you just end up missing a little bit, no matter how much you like living here.
On the other hand, it might be bad to live in the city because you can surround yourself with English speakers, watch English TV at home, go to foreign bars and work in an all English environment and never really get immersed in what is going on here. If you have lived in the city for any length of time, you’ve met that person that has done just that for the last 15 years or so. They are still essentially living in a foreign bubble.
And that is why I would normally recommend starting in the countryside first because you’ll be forced to get out and be in Japan. You’ll have to eat Japanese food, and you’ll have to learn at least some Japanese, unless you lock yourself in your apartment.
The one good thing about living in the city, and the one reason why a lot of foreigners end up living in the city, is the job opportunities. In the countryside, you are fairly limited to just being an English teacher. Even if you are quite fluent, there isn’t much of a demand for a native speaker of English usually. Jobs do exist of course, but not in the numbers that exist in the city. Tokyo is the best place for international jobs. But, Kansai also has opportunities as well.
Even if you plan to teach English your entire time in Japan, the city is a great place because there are a lot of chances to pick up different kinds of classes with different kinds of organizations. This can make your job more interesting or stressful, depending on how you look at it.
City or Countryside?
Where would you live if you had the choice? If you live in Japan, where do you live? What are some of the advantages? Disadvantages?